Fairly early on in Detroit, Carl is demonstrating to two white girls what it’s like living as a black person in the US. He’s holding a palm-sized starter gun that looks enough like a real gun to make his spectators hold their breaths. He rants and shouts contradictory orders at Lee, who tries to answer swiftly and politely even as Carl starts shoving him and waving the gun in his face. Lee can’t give Carl the right answer, because Carl, representing the white police force, doesn’t want to hear the right answer. Finally, Carl shoots the pistol and Lee drops — and the two dissolve into laughter, as this gun is all bang and no bullets. The girls watching, and the young friends Larry and Fred, don’t find it quite so funny, and Carl laments that they can’t take a joke. The girls don’t really want to hear this lesson, and nor do Larry and Fred; they’d been hoping their night at the Algiers Motel would be an escape from the imploding city outside.
The movie as a whole shares a lot with this scene: the camera hovers at peoples’ shoulders and backs, it gets in too close to their faces and shudders and rocks as the perspective shifts and situations escalate. Detroit wants you to know what that constant level of tension feels like. It shows you a hopeless situation that the victims cannot get out of, and no matter how polite, compliant and nonthreatening they are, nothing they do or say can end it until the aggressors decide it’s over. This is probably the clearest indication that it’s a movie made by a white woman, probably aimed largely at white audiences. Non-white viewers in modern America presumably don’t really need informing of society’s ongoing, inherent racism. If Detroit can be a slap in the face and a wake-up call for people who don’t realise that institutional racism is real, then that’s great. It’s a dramatic, well-acted, well-shot movie. But it’s not a story that’s told for the victims or the oppressed themselves; its black characters are universally helpless in the face of what happens, which may be accurate enough when it comes to these events, but could be handled better by allowing them more agency in the events that bracket the violence at the Algiers Motel.
It takes a while to ramp up to the events at the motel. The movie begins by meandering through the chaotic streets, offering a taste of what’s to come here and there: even as the social contract breaks down, people still want to just be people and have fun and drink and dance and sing. The heightened emotions that occur when fun and abandon collide with hard, humourless law-keeping don’t bubble over initially, but it’s clear how recklessness is going to grow, both in the oppressed black population of the city, and in the institutionally racist police force. The police know that their raid on an unlicensed venue will inflame tensions in the area: it’s with great reluctance that they accept they’ll have to bring the party-goers out through the front door, onto the street, rather than round the back of the building. Here, in plain view, locals gather to watch as the whole party is bundled roughly into vans with no questions asked. But the knowledge that their tactics are provocative doesn’t stop the police from carrying on, doubling down and telling themselves the blame lies only on the city’s black population, not on the failings of the state.
Gradually, the camera starts to pick out individuals, bringing areas of the chaos into focus. Leon, one of the frustrated onlookers at the party raid, is spotted looting groceries. A white police officer, in the middle of claiming that they are ‘failing these people’, chases Leon down and makes it clear precisely what he means by that: Krauss shoots the fleeing man in the back repeatedly, even when he’s dropped the tins and packets he’d taken. Krauss’ superior is pissed with him: he knows this man is actively racist in his dealings with Detroit’s black population, he disagrees with Krauss’ approach and he slaps down his suggestion that looting can only be stopped by shooting looters in the back. But he sends Krauss back out. And he’s the first of a bunch of cowards we meet who could have done something to prevent the crimes committed at the Algiers, and he’s not even the worst of them.
Although John Boyega’s security guard, Melvin Dismukes, is billed as the main character in the trailers for Detroit, it’s really Larry, played by Algee Smith, who’s at the movie’s heart. Dismukes is caught between sides, able to do little more than look on in horror at what unfolds under Krauss’ reign of terror at the Algiers. He does what he can — like the first time we meet him, he tries to divert the anger of the white police, and he seems to share an understanding with the man from the military. But none of this makes any difference; Krauss has nothing to fear from Dismukes or his account of the night. Dismukes’ complicity in what happened led him to be tried alongside the white officers, and although Detroit implies that there’s little he could have done, it would have benefitted from letting us inside Dismukes’ head a little more. Boyega is perfectly capable of showing us what isn’t said out loud, and his performance is affecting, but he’s still not given a lot to work with.
Larry, meanwhile, is a swaggering, confident young singer in The Dramatics: he is certain of a big record deal in his future, he just wants to see a theatre full of people dancing and moving to the sound of his voice. Still, he wants his best friend, Fred (Jaboc Latimore) to be there for all of it, even though Fred isn’t in the band. Fred’s sweet and quiet and conscientious, and when Larry’s dreams of taking to the stage in front of a big name from Motown are scuppered by a police order to clear the venue because of unrest in the area, Larry makes like any other teenage boy: he’s going to find his sweet, introverted friend a girl, and he’s going to find one for himself while he’s at it. But by the end of the ordeal at the Algiers, Larry’s a totally different person: he turns in on himself, and when he looks at a theatre audience, or even at record company execs, and he sees white people dancing, and the police guarding the exits, he relives the trauma of the night at the Algiers. The police stole the lives of those who survived that night as much as those who were killed. Larry is the only character whose inner life is explored to any depth, and it’s an effective arc to show, even if it felt abbreviated in between the overruling need to move on with the action.
In short though, you should leave this movie angry. The sheer number of people who could have made a difference and didn’t is horrifying, from the State Police who turn away from what they fear will be a ‘civil rights issue’ they don’t want to get dragged into, to the military officer who plays along with Krauss’ intimidation tactics, to dumbass Demens who’d rather kill a man in cold blood than stand up to a racist bully. At the end of the movie, when text flashes up to update us on where Dismukes and Larry and Julie ended up, and to confirm that full, public justice was never received by the victims at the Algiers, you get a hint of how many people in local government must have been complicit in derailing any attempt to get redress for those who were killed and beaten and traumatised by the police that night. There’s no closure to this story, not least because of the resonance it still has in contemporary America.
As a film, Detroit is an effective piece that ratchets the tension up consistently, is acted brilliantly, and has a thing or two to teach people about white allyship. It’s not as revolutionary as it might have been though. Although I found it powerful viewing, having since read criticisms of the way it depicts the passivity of its black characters and of the attempted objectivity of its account, I’m inclined to agree with those criticisms. The movie begins by warning us that ‘change had to come’, but if the change refers to the sudden explosion of frustration that resulted in riots and looting, that story is never completed by the movie — what brought the riots to an end? And if it refers to what should come afterwards, to an actual catharsis or resolution that rights the imbalances of the segregated society depicted, then we’re still not there. That’s the kind of thing that an ambitious movie like this should acknowledge openly, rather than assuming its audience is all on the same page; it’s a lazy assumption that allows people to continue to ignore the problems in contemporary American society.